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Jim's Journal - January 2003


'Dear Friends'
Christmas at 'Ephesus', December 2002
Being an unsettling object of the occasion
Handing over and its implications
Excerpt from Frank Cooke's newsletter

Note - some personal and geographical details may be altered to protect individuals

Dear Friends,
I am writing from Birmingham in the UK. I have been here for three weeks now, and am beginning to settle in. I have had no news from home in Kenya as yet. Politically we can give thanks that the election went peacefully, and the new government is now establishing itself in power in Kenya. I gather that all is well at KIST.
My time here is proving valuable and challenging. I am taking this opportunity to do some library work that will hopefully help me to continue researching once I am back in Kenya. The two major areas that I am researching at the moment are 1. The use of language and 2. The application of principles of cleanliness and holiness to the people and the church in Africa.
I am taking the opportunity of visiting many of my supporting churches over weekends while I am here in the UK. It is good to be back, although I am missing home. Your prayers are valued for folks that I have left in Yala Theological Centre, at home, those that I was able to visit in Tanzania and also at KIST. I value prayer also in terms of strategic decisions that I am having to make.
God willing, I will be returning to Kenya on 2nd April 2003.

PS For any one interested in issues of development who could give me some comments on an article that I have recently written, please read (thanks to Angela Merridale for having typed this for me).

Christmas at 'Ephesus', December 2002 (Written December 2002)

5000 people dressed in brightly coloured robes and gowns were packed onto two acres of land over a wet few days. All were obliged to go barefoot. Improvised booths (tents) 4 foot high, 3 foot wide, and perhaps 8 foot deep covered some sections of the compound. Other places filled with temporary shelters for the sale of tea and chapatis or rolls. Religious artifacts such as rosaries, wooden crosses, prayer books and gowns were on sale from path-side booths. A large incomplete (roofless) church was being constructed in the middle. Below the church people gathered around priests receiving prayers and messages from angels scrawled in indecipherable lines, kneeling, chanting and praying. Above the roof-less church, two or three large buildings devoted to the adoration of the founder members of Legio-Maria, one containing the grave of the lady know as 'Maria' the 'mother' of the founder Ondeto. The faithful fall flat on their faces as they worship in these buildings. Everywhere are pictures of 'Maria', Ondeto and Jesus and large and small crosses. Some of these artifacts are being sold, others are on display and others are carried on the end of long poles.

Reaching this site, known by the Legio as Ephesus, took us a six mile walk from the lodging-room that myself and my Bible-teacher colleague David Asembo had booked at the small town of Ugunja in Western Kenya. David went on ahead as I followed the 2000 people who had made a pilgrimage to a religious site at Ugunja, walking slowly on the muddy road back to 'Ephesus' where they had already been staying. We stopped at a historic church, for prophets to receive revelations with all of us listening intently.

A Legio man began talking to me as we walked. "Move to the back if you want to talk" said another man as we were disturbing those who were singing and praying. "These people have come from miles around" said my colleague "because of their faith in God." He went on to explain that these believers often walked vast distances to attend this event. When they got there, there was no food or accommodation or transport money provided what-so-ever. (People could buy food from the booths on site). He compared that with the typical situation of churches in Kenya, in which worshippers go where the money is. "This is how we know that this is the true church" he said. In many ways I had to agree with him. I was observing great faith in action.

Crouched at the gates to the compound were gowned men clutching pieces of wood fashioned in the style of automatic weapons, firing imaginary bullets at us and any other suspected evil, while chattering aggressively and continuously. 'Remove hat and shoes' I was told. I was whisked with fly-whisks made from cow's tails and prayed for as I passed the gate, well trampled squishy mud oozing between my toes, crowded in by the religiously dressed who were intrigued to receive a white visitor and even more amazed to find him fluent in their mother-tongue Dholuo.

Once having found a home for our bags and my bicycle we began our zig-zag walk exploring this holy place. "If you want to go in there you have to drink holy water first and then fall flat on your face" I was told. The deputy-Pope (the Pope was too unwell to attend) was squirting holy water into the mouths and over the heads of the faithful who came to kneel in the mud all around him. While this was happening a male-voice choir was espousing the importance of belief in the 'black messiah'. Carefully walking through the mud I reached the building containing the grave of Maria herself. A man sitting on the steps told me that entering would render me a sworn-in-member of Legio Maria. I stood in the doorway and looked at the prostrate worshippers and images from the outside without entering, much to his apparent displeasure.

The rank and office of various of the Legio Maria leaders was periodically being pointed out to us. As we walked around I kept on meeting with people who knew me who gave me a friendly welcome and suggested what I might do and see. There was a continuous hum of amazement as people heard me speak their mother tongue.

We were eventually asked to stand and wait for the deputy Pope to finish his task of blessing people. When he had finished all the faithful around him joined him kneeling in the mud. (I remained standing. Perhaps I should have knelt also?) He was too tired to see us, so we should try to meet with him on the following day, we were told.

The prospect of sleeping at this crowded muddy site with more rain-clouds threatening and not even a chair on offer never mind a bed, began to look daunting. David and I decided to 'make a run' for our guesthouse room 6 miles away up the muddy track. We paid for a bicycle taxi for David, but then decided to finish the journey on foot after he found himself sitting in the mud for the second time. Light-less bicycles and bicycle taxis continued to dash past us in the almost pitch black as we walked on with the aid of my 'life-saving' torch.

Early on Christmas morning I became the cycle taxi, and David and I returned. The midnight-mass (Roman Catholic style) had been celebrated by candlelight in our absence (while we were in our lodging room trying to sleep through a midnight-disco!) More people had come and some had left. A high-ranking church-man allowed me to wear my sandals. This prompted the faithful to talk to me in aggressive tones as they looked at my feet. A man wearing a large hat made of thorns warned me that if I did not remove my sandals I would burn in hell. I took off my sandals. By this time the mud had dried somewhat in the sun.

David and I continued to respond to curious inquirers, that we were there to learn about Legio Maria and to promote our Bible classes at Yala Theological Centre. This is not a church that has believed greatly in education. Once the Christmas day (Noel) mass was over, we sought out some of the Bishops, and sat with them in one of the many mud-thatched huts scattered around. We actually sat on chairs as we spent a half-hour or so talking with these Bishops in appreciation of their welcome to us to their holy festival and in explaining our desire to be a help to indigenous Christian churches by providing courses on theology, the Bible and church leadership. Our local (Yala) bishop promised to encourage his members to feel free to attend our classes provided that we pass him a copy of out teaching programme.

We left, passing vehicles stuck in the mud a mile from 'Ephesus'. David and I have both acquired a better understanding of what this indigenous church - that broke away from Roman Catholicism in the early 1960s - is all about.

Sometimes it felt as if we were walking through a mediaeval holy fair. The ascetic devotion of the Legio Maria worshippers on one of their annual pilgrimages was impressive and challenging. These are people who value the power of God in driving away ghosts and demons. (They like to greet one another by saying oyawore - meaning 'things have been made new, since the coming of Christianity to Africa'. The Gospel has enabled them to keep evil forces at bay). Their dress code is based on pictures that they see of Bible times in the Holy Land. They are prepared to walk barefoot, kneel in the mud, lie flat on their faces, leave family behind at Christmas time and loose sleep through their devotion to Christ. They suffer the ridicule of some Christians and some non-believers in today's 'Western-looking' Africa, for their zealous adherence to the demands of this interpretation of Christianity.

Their frustration with the white domination of the Roman catholic church has lead this church (who I was told numbered 500,000 to 1 million) to declare their late founder Simeo Ondeto to be Jesus. That does not mean that they reject the Biblical Jesus. They ardently follow most Roman Catholic beliefs and practices while also holding their late black messiah in high esteem. Ondeto was born amongst them. He understood their language and their problems. He inspired and inspires them in a way in which the white catholic Jesus apparently never seemed to do.

We in Yala Theological Centre believe that Jesus did not come only for whites but also for blacks. Hence we visit the Legio Maria, share with them and welcome them to our classes. We share the desire of the Legio Maria for Jesus to speak to the hearts of the African people. We do not accept the divinity of Ondeto, but do desire to build a bridge and to make it clear that the adherents of Legio Maria are welcome to put aside differences and fellowship with the wider Christian body.

Being an Unsettling Object of the Occasion (Written December 2002)

Sitting at a funeral of a big man in Alego, listening to the upper-hierarchy of a well known church speaking, I began to have an uneasy feeling.

The higher up the church hierarchy that one climbs (here in Africa) the greater the chance that someone has passed through a very Western education, often in a Western country. This happens because it is perceived that high-ranking people should get 'the best from the West' and because more and more churches are basing their hierarchy on education-level-achieved. The colour code of the dress of clergy is sometimes based on their educational level. One finds a situation like to be a priest you need a diploma, to be an overseer you need a degree and to be a Bishop you need an MA etc.

This means that whereas local pastors tend to have a somewhat contextualised message, this happens less and less as one reaches the higher echelons of church leadership. Sitting at the funeral it slowly dawned on me that the ideal life being espoused was none other than - life in England itself, as they understood it!

I do not know how uneasy it made them, as they were there to represent England (life in the West) on the basis of their high level of Western education, yet sitting in the audience listening closely was an 'original product'! It was certainly uncanny for me to hear what to me were misunderstandings of my culture being advocated as 'God's way' by these church clerics.

Handing over and its Implications (Written December 2002)

Some things in life we take by faith. Others we know to be true through investigation and proof. What happens if what we know to be true turns out not to be true, when it has already become the foundation of much that we do? What happens for example if milking cows cease to give milk, or we discover that eggs that we thought were being laid by chickens were actually coming from cats?

This is the problem besetting the African church today. They have respected those who has said 'do a,b,c and you will get d,e,f' only to find that they are lacking in ingredients g,h,i that are actually mandatory to get abc. gh and i include much finance, the absence of the extended family, a rational Western mindset etc.

Well meaning Western Christians in their efforts to 'help' the church in Africa, can be pushing it down a blind alley. In most cases books, courses and even theological teachers from Western nations who intend to instruct church leaders, results in graduates who want to be dependent on the West and whose theology is of limited value amongst the people they will be reaching.

It is incredible how naïve this process of theological education can be. An African young man may spend 4, 6 or even more years in full time theological education learning from Europeans how things 'ought' to be in the African church. Then when looking for an African theologian to tell us what is really going on in Africa, we choose the same person! Is it surprising that he will tell us just what he has been learning for all those years, regardless of 'the actuality on the ground' in order to keep Westerners happy?

The 'truth on the ground' is also extremely difficult if not impossible to communicate to a Western audience. As long as the Western church continues to use this means to acquire its know-how about the rest of the world, it will not be easy to discern just what is going on.

The same applies also in reverse. It is hard for me to explain the situation in Europe to people here in Africa. The people who can better satisfy their curiosity, albeit still with difficulty, are rather those who were brought up here in Africa and have subsequently lived in Europe. They are aware of the basic metaphors used by their people to describe life in Africa, and how these metaphors need to be stretched and strained to give an inkling of what is going on in a distant land.

A key issue here is the use of finance. Colonialists in bygone years used resources from home to bring developments on this Continent in the anticipation that they would remain in Africa but under European rule. Missionaries often followed suit and tried to bring change through investing funds. Now African economies have been set up to depend on outside charity that local people consume according to a system called ufisadi (sometimes called corruption). The mutual relationship that was anticipated by the early colonialists, has instead become one of one-way dependence.

While such dependence quickly looks extremely unhealthy to those familiar with Western economics, it is all that there is in Africa. There is (almost) no indigenous economy but for the subsistence one. There has been little to stimulate its production - because of the dominant effect of the outside. Hence the African person continues to be in need of large amounts of foreign aid in order to perpetuate the no go system that he has inherited and become dependent upon.

This is not something which we can blame either 'the colonialists' or 19th Century missionaries. It is something going on, and it seems at an ever growing rate. The role model given to African people by those from the West is increasingly one of extravagant wealthy living. Given that people 'do what I do' more than 'do what I say' this is what they have to learn from. Free access to information over the internet will add to this effect.

Whereas western economies are to some extent controlled and regulated by government in the interests of the people, such is almost impossible in many African countries. Finance thus remains in the pockets of the few. Given the nature of life today, these few never run out of things to spend their money on. Hence wealth does not get to be shared out, and the masses do not benefit.

The church need not be a part of this system, but all too often it is. Books and instruction from the West suggest implicitly that a pastor 'ought' to have his own car, computer, telephone and bank account. This is then understood by African believers themselves as being the essence of Christianity! Christianity has become salaries, English, western medicine, cars and electronic consumer goods, and who can blame people for believing this?

As I have said above, people 'do what I do' even when we would rather they 'do what I say'. So also my account above is not based on what people say that they do or believe, but on what they apparently believe according to what they say and especially how they behave.

Excert from Frank Cooke's Newsletter - The Key to the Cosmos

Frank is a Baptist minister who lives in Andover. He writes some excellent things, like:

Why do intellectuals assume that 'real' knowledge must be impersonal and measurable? Did the eye evolve by blind chance? Does the music of love and of heaven spring from a God who is a colourless gas or a seethrough computer?

The highest concepts humans can obtain are exclusively in personal relationships, and remember that the Bible word for personally committed relationships is 'covenant' - the key to our grasp of the cosmos … not scientific rationalism.